Mind the gap – Lessons from the world’s subway systems for the UK hydrogen future




Mind the gap – Lessons from the world’s subway systems for the UK hydrogen future.


Many of the world’s first subway systems were categorised by a series of independent ventures that operated in competition with each other. This somewhat disjointed evolution to city subway systems has, in many places, led to highly complex networks which creates ongoing challenges for renovation, extension and integration.


A mixture of platform heights, station designs and rolling stock has led to gaps several inches across and several inches high on numerous platforms around the world. It’s an unfortunate design relic that will continue to create access challenges for the less mobile well into the future.


The same challenges are emerging in the hydrogen industry, with the hurdles ahead reminiscent of the development of subway systems. The concern is that without a clear and comprehensive approach to advancing hydrogen production and transportation, we risk encountering the same missteps that characterised the evolution of subways.


Refocusing on bridging the hydrogen gap


The energy industry has set out to achieve the ambitious target of 10 GW of low carbon hydrogen production across the economy by 2030. The UK specifically has an impressive rollcall of pilot projects, however a gap remains between strategy and progress on the ground. Without a guiding light that brings the two together, there is a risk of wrong turns ahead.


More worrying, progress since the 2021 Hydrogen Strategy is now jeopardiszed after the latest Contracts for Difference round secured no new offshore wind. Without thriving offshore wind, hitting 10GW low carbon hydrogen will be challenging and suboptimal.


Beyond offshore wind, scaling up clean hydrogen is crucial for decarboniszing sectors like shipping, aviation, and construction. Any hydrogen roadblocks risk the UK falling behind in comparison to European peers, impacting not only the environment but also economic and employment benefits. However, the coming years could also establish the UK as a hydrogen and storage leader.


Closing the hydrogen gap: powering tomorrow


The UK needs a consistent framework – similar to the US Inflation Reduction Act – to unlock financing and catalyse hydrogen growth. Detailed plans for how hydrogen projects and hubs interconnect will also be key. In fact, Project Union found a whole system approach could save £38bn by 2050. And while feasibility work is underway to develop a UK hydrogen backbone, the full plan is still 1-2 years off.


With just seven years to scale up, we can’t wait until all the lines on the map are drawn. Industry must forge ahead, scaling up electrolysis technologies to be commercially competitive and proving the hydrogen concept through smaller pilot projects across transport hubs, industrial clusters and domestic hydrogen.


Port Esbjerg’s integrated wind-hydrogen hub exemplifies what’s possible, as Europe’s largest base for offshore wind it will produce green hydrogen for shipping and industry, plus heat for homes. It also plans to export hydrogen by rail.


The next few years are critical to the future of the UK’s hydrogen economy. Both government and developers have a role to play in closing the current gap that exists between the strategic vision for hydrogen and the commercialisation of the technology. The quicker the gap can be addressed, the more likely it is that individual projects and hubs will be able to successfully integrate into the future hydrogen economy.



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